15 years ago, Michael Crichton gave this speech to the National Press Club. It’s amazingly prescient about the last days of the mainstream media.
Consider the following: I don’t know much about the military. I don’t follow it. Someone says to me, Okay Crichton, you’re doing an interview will Les Aspin. You have two hours to prepare questions. What am I going to ask. Well, let’s see. I know he’s been in the hospital for some reason. I’ll inquire about his health, but I don’t want to be obvious, so I’ll frame it as a national security issue. Are you really fit to do the job. Then I’ll ask him something about base closings: are there too many? Is it happening too fast? Is the process fair? Then I’ll ask him about defence conversion. Are we doing enough for unemployed engineers? Then let’s see, waste in procurements. Wasn’t there a $600 toilet seat. I know it was a few years ago, but it’s always good for a few minutes. Then the Soviet Union, should we be downsizing so fast with all the uncertainty in the world. Then I’ll ask him about gays in the military. Was Clinton’s approach wise? Is this really the best way to go about it? And that should do it.
This generality creates a fundamental asymmetry between subject and journalist - and ultimately, between journalists and audience. Les Aspin has to know much more detail, has to address very specific pressures, to carry out his job. But I can frame very general questions and get away with doing mine. How do I justify my position? Well, I can tell myself that I’m too busy to do better, because the news rushes onward. But that’s not really satisfactory. Better to say the American people don’t want details, they just want “the basics.” In other words I can blame my own shoddy behavior on the audience. And if I hear the audience criticizing me, I can say I’m being blamed as the bearer of bad news. Instead of what is really going on - which is that my customers are telling me that my product is poorly researched and often either uninteresting or irrelevant. It’s junk food journalism. Empty calories.
And, get this, here he is, in 1993, before its wide availability, giving credit to Al Gore for, shall I say, ‘inventing the Internet.’
Once Al Gore gets the fiber optic highways in place, and the information capacity of the country is where it ought to be, then I will be able, for example, to view any public meeting of Congress on tape. And I will have artificial intelligence agents roaming the databases downloading stuff I am interested in, and assembling for me a front page, or a nightly news show that addresses my interests. I’ll have twelve top stories that I want; I’ll have short summaries available, and I can double click for more detail. How will Peter Jennings or MacNeil-Lehrer or a newspaper compete with that?